President Who?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

WHO DO I call if I want to call Europe, Henry Kissinger once famously asked. For eight years European federalists labored to produce an answer to that question -- staging a constitutional convention, ignoring repeated rebuffs by voters and bullying skeptical small countries. At a summit on Thursday they delivered a mouse: a new president and foreign policy chief for the European Union whose obscure backgrounds and lack of experience virtually guarantee that they will not supplant national leaders as figures on the world stage or as interlocutors with Washington. That's probably just as well.

The new president of the European Council, Belgian Premier Herman Van Rompuy, and High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton are both described as capable by those who know them. But few do: Mr. Van Rompuy, 62, who was on the verge of retirement when he was drafted to head the Belgian government a year ago, is recognized by just 12 percent of Europeans, according to one poll. Ms. Ashton, 53, is a career apparatchik of the British Labor Party who has never been elected and has no background in foreign policy.

Far more distinguished candidates were available: former British prime minister Tony Blair, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga are well known and admired in Washington. Were Europeans genuinely committed to uniting behind a single figure to do business with the United States, Russia or China, it's likely that one of them would have been chosen. But, by European accounts, it was French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who resolved that the new president would be a low-profile figure from a small country.

Mr. Sarkozy, Ms. Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown consequently can expect far more phone calls from the White House than the new European representatives can. That is appropriate. Though the European Union is growing stronger and may be bolstered by other aspects of the new Lisbon treaty, most Europeans aren't ready to have their national governments supplanted in key matters of domestic and foreign policy -- which is why the treaty's more ambitious predecessor was voted down in three referendums. Europeans worry that their lack of unity will exclude them from a new "G-2" composed of the United States and China. That's unlikely. Notwithstanding Mr. Kissinger's taunt, Europe's global influence will be determined by its economic weight and willingness to remain a military partner of the United States -- not by who answers the phone.

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